Canyon Tales
A Sh***y Trip in Heaps
by Dave Black

The intent was to solo down Heaps overnight. I figured my partner would be a no–show and I would be able to go alone. But that was not the case. I found her in the Bit and Spur parking lot. While she sorted gear, I ran into the Park and got a permit for an overnighter, to be out by the next evening. Back at the parking lot I learned that R.S. not only had left my watch in Las Vegas, but she had also shown up with a tiny pack, a thin shortie wetsuit, and no drybags. Worse, she had brought her dog along and couldn’t find the doggy–sitter in Springdale.

These were all omens I stupidly ignored.

I lent her a 3/2 wetsuit and the 7mm jacket I was going to wear over my own 3/2 wetsuit. I pulled a pack out of my truck, punched three holes in the bottom for drainage, and told her to pack her stuff in it. The only dry bag I could find was just big enough for the dry clothes we would need.

I had real misgivings about her taking the dog along, but she insisted and I caved. She hid her dog, a small neurotic bug–eyed Chihuahua, in her backpack as we rode the shuttle into the park. It was dark by the time we arrived at the Grotto trailhead. Within an hour we were high on the ridge past the saddle behind Angel’s Landing. We slept an hour and then hiked quickly to Camp 2. We had made good time and could afford a few more hours of sleep.

It was cold and I just fidgeted without sleeping. My second night without sleep. It was past 5:00 when I first tried to wake R.S. She refused to budge. I tried again an hour later and she still refused. Yet another hour later I tried again, and she refused again. I grabbed my pack and left her there, fully intending to solo Heaps as I had planned. Unfortunately she caught up with me again as I retrieved a cached rope and was repacking at Camp IV.

As we started out on the ridge toward Phantom Valley, R.S. immediately began having problems with the dog, fell behind, and got lost. I waited endlessly at the second rappel and finally decided to go back up the ridge and find her. She had been fussing with the dog and I reminded her that there was no turning back after the second rappel and that she needed to carry the damned dog in her pack.

Finally at noonish, about 4 hours behind schedule, we arrived at the first potholes. I put on my wetsuit and she put on my other suit and the jacket. The dog was going to be a big problem. At each pothole she would coax it in and out of the drybag to coddle it. It caused serious delays at every rappel and swim. I was carrying all the weight and waiting for her for long periods of time in the cold water. Worse, on the very first swim she had tried to carry the dog across in an open dry bag. The bag filled with water and soaked our few dry clothes and the matches. This made me angrier and prompted her to change tactics with the dog. At each pothole and rappel, she would put the dog in the drybag, roll it up so it was bulging with air, then seal it. At the end of the rappel or swim, she would open the bag to give the dog some air.

This fussing with the dog consumed an enormous amount of time, and by 4:00 we were only midway through the second narrows, where we encountered a pothole obstacle that required a 25–foot swim and some traversing to the platform. The maneuver seemed like it took only a few minutes, but it was apparently longer, because when R.S. arrived at the platform and opened the bag, Bimbo was as dead as a doornail—suffocated in the cold darkness of the drybag.

R.S. began to scream and wail like a madwoman. She totally lost control and dissociated herself from the canyoneering problems at hand. I then realized we were on the brink of a catastrophic epic.

What can you use a dead Chihuahua for? A paperweight? A door stop? No ... a toilet brush! No ... to toss for a pothole escape? Or maybe when rigor sets in you can strap him to a boot for a crampon. I reached over, grabbed the bag, and peered into it for a look. Sure enough. I’d seen a lot of dead people and animals in my day—fried, frozen, shot, skewered, crunched, blown up, skinned, sliced, diced.

I knew dead, and he was definitely dead.

By then in between the wailing and bawling she was screaming that she hates the canyon and to get her out of this f—ing canyon and she wants to go home. Things were looking grim. I pulled the limp dog from the bag and examined him. No breathing. No refill on his gums. No pulse. I had to do something or the freaked–out blonde would get us all killed.

The dog’s snout was wet and slimy, and so small that my lips went almost to his buggy eyes when I put it into my mouth. I started breathing into him and pumping on his bony chest with two fingers of my right hand. R.S. continued wailing and yelling. I figured I would do CPR for a few minutes and then explain to her that I’d done everything humanly possible, but Bimbo was dead and we must go on. Secretly I was relieved he was dead. I had already been shivering from cold for a couple of hours, and it was probably close to 5:00 by now. With Bimbo gone, we could speed it up and get out by dark. That’s what I was thinking. Fate had different plans. After ten or 15 minutes Bimbo was awake and squirming in my hands.

R.S. continued wailing and crying, but it was because Bimbo was alive again. She was oblivious to everything else, and she was warm in her 9mm of neoprene. Nothing else mattered to her. I was becoming hypothermic. We needed to find sun and to push on at full speed. But first we needed to traverse to the rappel bolts. It required a simple step across an exposed gap to the next ledge, but I was shivering violently and couldn’t make the move. I tried this and that. Nothing seemed to work. She was incapable of rescuing me or even herself if I fell. She was so freaked out that she didn’t even understand what I was talking about when I asked for a simple belay. Finally I was able to get her to calm down enough that I could put a rope on her and belay her across. I followed. This pothole that would normally have taken a few minutes had taken us more than two hours to do. We continued down the canyon.

Meanwhile back up on the Rim Trail, Hank Moon and his party of 6 were headed into Heaps for a 2–day ‘stroll’ down the canyon. Down on the canyon floor they laid around in the setting sun and snacked on salami and cheese, crackers, and hot cups of Cup–O–Soups. Down canyon, R.S. and I were thrashing through the last potholes of the second narrows. She was still distracted by the dog and wasting time, and I was carrying all the weight—two heavy bags and a 100m rope in a rope bag. When we came to the 8th rappel, I decided it was time to lighten our load. I dumped out the contents of both packs and repacked only the critical items in one bag. The other bag and non–essential items were stashed behind a log. The shortie wetsuit was stashed there too. I was already hypothermic and it would have taken an hour to put it on, so what did it matter? We finished the rest of the second narrows and reached the entrance to the third as it began to get dark.

By this time the hypothermia was having a serious effect on me. I was not thinking clearly. The canyon seemed to be running uphill instead of down. I hiked up and down the corridor to try to find out why it was going uphill. Meanwhile a couple of aircraft flew overhead and I was convinced they were looking for us. The option was to bivouac here or drop into the final and longest of the narrows in the dark. That would certainly mean a hypothermic death for me.

The bivouac sucked. Even R.S. in her 9mm of neoprene was shivering by morning. Hypothermia, a third night without sleep, a cold morning start in the dark frigid potholes ... it all looked pretty grim.

In the morning I made a simple case to R.S. I would not survive the potholes if I couldn’t get warm before we went in. We would have to find some sunshine. I hiked back up the canyon and found a tiny ledge in the sun we could scramble up to. There in the sun I fell asleep. An hour later the sun had hit the canyon floor and R.S. convinced me to go lie down on the canyon floor in front of a dark wall that reflected the sun’s heat. A few hours later I woke up. I was cooking in my suit, and it felt so good. R.S. was sleeping topless on her back. No time for enjoying the view. We were warmed up and it was time to go. It was probably about 1:00 or 2:00.

Up at the top of the canyon the Moonies had sat in the morning sun casually eating eggs benedict and smoking Camels.

R.S. had by then perfected the routine with the dog and was wasting less time, and we made our way down the final narrows in relatively good time. By 7:00 we were rigging the final rappel. R.S. refused to rappel the 330 feet and opted to have me lower her so she could take care of the dog on the way down. I re–rigged with a carabiner block and rapped to the ground. The pull cord had pulled out of its bag and tangled on the way down. It would have taken an hour to retrieve it and the rope, and by now it was likely the Park Service actually was looking for us. We needed to get down to notify them. I left the rope in place, hoping the noisy party behind us (the Moonies) would pull it down.

It was getting dark by the time we got to the Grotto shuttle stop. The driver told us the search was on, and she called the rangers to let them know we had been found. R.S. hid the dog in her pack again and when we arrived at the Visitor’s Center she excused herself to go to the bathroom so the rangers wouldn’t discover the dog. The rangers explained to me that R.S.’s mother had been calling frantically and insisting they go find us. So they were casually looking for us but had not launched a rescue yet because I had a good reputation as a canyoneer and, according to the permit,we were still not late. It turned out that the ranger at the permit desk had misunderstood and given us an extra day on the permit. Technically we weren’t overdue until the next morning. Lucky for us. A rescue in Heaps would have cost us $20,000.

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There’s a lot to be said about this incident. But there are two points that stick out in my mind. First, there’s no place for a pet in a canyon like Heaps, even if the dog is ‘an experienced canyon dog’ like Bimbo. It’s cruel and dangerous. I should never have caved in to R.S. and allowed her to take the dog.

Second, an interesting point of ethics was stirred up. The Moonies found a number of items left behind by previous parties. These included male briefs, a pair of trousers, a sock, the pack–stash at Rappel 8, a white plastic bag containing Hydroskins, and the ropes at the exit. They soon circulated pictures and stories of the booty on the internet and naturally blamed it on the party ahead of them, which was us. I immediately accepted blame for the pack–stash and the ropes, but the rest of the booty belonged to somebody else.

This is one of the pitfalls of bolting a canyon like this. It means more people will descend it, more garbage will be left behind, and there will be more damage from overuse. If you bolt it, they will come.

All things considered, this trip rates right up there with root canal and plague.

Dave Black

Articles by Dave Black:
  First Descent? • Dave Black
  Mae West Slot • Dave Black
  A Sh***y Trip in Heaps • Dave Black
  Fixed Ropes in the Black Hole • Dave Black
  For Pothole Puzzle Solvers • Dave Black
  On Writing Books • Dave Black

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© 2005 Dave Black